Sunday, September 30, 2018

Geek TV

When the HBO series Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, no-one predicted (AFAIK) its immense and enduring popularity. I figured the show would last about three seasons, make a little money, and fade out, remembered by sci-fi fans and cosplayers but not the general viewership. Instead it has become more popular than The Sopranos, bringing HBO twenty-five million viewers per episode and a billion dollars per season. According to The AV Club (h/t my brother Patrick, a fellow scifi fan), HBO, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, Apple TV, and every other network with capital the spare has decided to fling their money at any new science fiction or fantasy series they can find. Geek TV is now the leading edge of the American media sector, with 43 new SF/fantasy series in planning or production.

My excitement about this news is tempered by my experience of many, many disappointing adaptations of genre classics, like Syfy’s amateurish Earthsea, Amazon’s boring Man in the High Castle, the bastardized film version of I, Robot, the dreary BBC Gormenghast miniseries (granted, I didn’t like the originals there), the bloodless and over-budgeted Golden Compass movie of 2007, the abominable Kindred: The Embraced series in the 1990s, and, further back, David Lynch’s hot-mess film adaptation of Dune. It is very easy to imagine the producers of any or all of these programs screwing up the transition from page to screen.  

In some cases I don’t suppose it matters much. I doubt, for instance, that The Wheel of Time or Snow Crash will ever make it to television, the former because of its unwieldy source material (2,782 characters? Yeesh), the latter because cyberpunk has become nonfiction. In other cases the original source material isn’t (IMHO) as good as the fans and critics say. Good Omens, whose TV version sounds like a done deal, is based on a middling-fair novel by two underperforming authors: Terry Pratchett never wrote a good collaborative story and Neil Gaiman was still at the start of his career. The Sirens of Titan was an amusing romp but far from Vonnegut’s best novel. The Foundation Trilogy and Ringworld have become classics, where “classic” is defined as “a book people frequently talk about but seldom read.” I agree with the AV Club writers that Asimov’s Foundation and Empire has the elements of a good story, but the rest of the series is heavy on didactic speech-making and shallow world-building. One might make a similar observation about Ringworld: the 1980 sequel, Ringworld Engineers, actually tells a better story than its predecessor, one with a greater variety of settings and alien races and an actual, y’know, plot. If the TV versions of these novels (Ringworld Engineers excepted) prove mediocre, that won’t necessarily make them worse than the original books.

All that said, I do hope the adaptation of Iain Banks’s Culture novels is done well. If the director and writers manage to incorporate the author's dry sense of humor and his love of anachronistic or steampunk-ish elements - clifftop castles, brass locomotives, cruel nobles, rusting bridges and iron warships - they could probably turn Consider Phlebas into at least as good a show as the BBC adaptation of Iain Banks's The Crow Road (1996). Read a little Douglas Adams, watch a few old episodes of Dr. Who, and I think the rest follows.

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